I came into this week’s episode feeling like the gameboard had been reset. We were 27 days in, and the eight remaining players had been through a lot – together and against each other, but with Kelley’s departure signalling the end of the returnee’s reign of the active game, and a Final 8 of players who had never been on the same page at every turn, I anticipated dynamic shifts moving forward.
In some cases, my fallible foresight still managed to divine the future: my concern that Wardog’s move against Kelley was too early and left him far too vulnerable in a field of players hungering for big game. On many other fronts, though, I was caught off-guard: it was Gavin, not “Jumping Ship” Julie, who felt the most burned by being left out of the vote, while the boat-rocking Rick set his sights on smooth sailing.
This has been an unpredictable season, but even in the more subdued tone of this episode, the complex strategic and social gameplay shone through. There was an old school element as the Final 8 wheeled and dealed to forge new agreements, establish common enemies and battle out their differences over spa rewards and rice rationing. The extra vote back in Aurora’s pocket made an appearance, but otherwise, game advantages and Idols played little part in the strategy – it was all social politicking in anticipation of the fast-approaching endgame. As Lauren described, now was the opportunity to get your ducks in a row – but with such individualistic players, keeping them in line would be a tough sell. Nevertheless, you had to try.
BARK OR BITE
Hot off the heels of David & Kelley’s departures, we farewelled yet another major player as The Wardog was put down in a near-unanimous vote. His betrayal of his Lesu 3 (and his freshly forged alliance of 6) by blindsiding Wentworth was divisive amongst the armchair critics. While I saw value in eliminating a major threat before it was too late, I fell in the camp of fearing the move would leave Wardog exposed and without any reliable currency of trust. Wardog has a savvy edge to his gameplay and has manipulated many of the votes through surprisingly subtle suggestion, but as was his arc in the pre-merge, he couldn’t connive in the shadows forever. Sooner or later, his machinations were going to be apparent, and all of his strategizing would shift from being the opportunistic ploy of an underdog to the aggressive orders of a controlling force.
Almost to the letter that played out over the course of this episode. Fresh out of Tribal Council, Wardog doubled down on his betrayal of Gavin by callously dismissing Gavin’s confusion and disappointment at being omitted from the plot against Wentworth, and he later took the same tact with Julie. In each case, he failed to see the game from their point of view as he bulldozed over their reactions with his own perspective that they were too close to Kelley to trust with the plan.
However accurate that assessment, he made no apparent effort to assuage the betrayal and reclaim any element of trust – to him, they were only goats who he could drag around whenever he needed them but who would mind their own business and harmlessly follow the crowd if left unattended. The likes of Gavin & Julie – and Aurora, Victoria and Lauren – only existed to be pawns in Wardog’s game, troops he could bark orders to and control with ease. Rick & Ron, now the closest thing he had to allies, were the only threats, but even they would fall in sync with the alpha of the pack, right?
Like many before him, Wardog got caught out in the arrogance of success and underestimated his opponents. It’s always a tragic mistake, and one shared by Rick this episode, who overconfidently boasted that he could kick back and relax on the spa reward because Julie and Lauren weren’t even playing, as we cut to the women talking strategy about taking Devens out. Yet Wardog’s hubris in this error feels particularly egregious in view of the overall trajectory of the season.
Wardog was a mover and shaker through several votes, instrumental in manipulating vulnerable Kamas to turn on the likes of Eric & Julia – big and bold in their position within their perceived majorities – and was crucial to the elimination of the last two returning players. Factor in the blindside of Joe and this merge has been elimination of big threat after big threat. Wardog recognised that his role in these moves left him a major threat, but he was unable to check his ego and slip back out of sight. Instead, he practically boasted of his role in taking out the threats instead of saving those receipts for Final Tribal, and in doing so, his bark brought the bite of the opponents he dismissed as non-threatening.
THE GOAT VOTE
So what of these purported goats? The likes of Gavin, Victoria, Julie, Aurora, and Lauren have ebbed and flowed in their relevance to our story, and even now, their motivations and gameplay seem a little shrouded in mystery. But this episode did work to fill in some of these gaps and realise these players as they took control of their games.
Gavin’s game has been largely inscrutable. Throughout the pre-merge, he was staunchly aligned with Eric and willing to go to rocks for him, but was willing to cut him almost immediately after the merge in order to pave his own independent path with a new alliance. Yet he bristles at Wardog’s betrayal of leaving him out of the vote as he claims he would have been happy to fall in line with the majority – just as he did when the tides turned against Julia. But now he found the determination to target a new nemesis in Wardog. Just like his brief obsession with eliminating the challenge beast in David, he became singularly focussed on taking out Wardog as retribution for the betrayal.
Gavin seems to change course erratically, torn between wanting to strike out for the big moves to put on his resume and the need to be adaptable to stay in the majority’s good graces. He’s determined to make his mark, but despite his laser focus against Wardog this episode, the ultimate success of that plan seemed to hinge more on Rick’s immunity win foiling the other underdogs’ schemes more than any moves Gavin himself made.
Perhaps the credit for Wardog’s elimination should lie more with Julie, who strongly advocated for his elimination even before Rick’s unexpected Immunity run. Whereas she could see the reasoning behind Ron’s deviation at the Kelley vote (a surprising, but commendable response given her previous track record to being left out of the vote by supposed allies), she saw Wardog’s scheming as untrustworthy and dangerous. She had been wanting to target Aurora for weeks, yet Wardog foiled the plan, only to turn around and take her stance now that it suited him. Julie saw that Wardog was only beholden to Wardog, and pushed to remove that obstacle from her path – yet she needed to convince her allies to make the move with her.
First among them, Lauren. Cut out of her safety net in her alliance with Kelley, Lauren was completely on her own and seeking allies. A convenient reward challenge brought her in with Julie and it allowed the two to see eye-to-eye. Players like Wardog, Rick, and Ron, were out in front and getting credit, so perhaps it was time for the so-called goats to rise up. However, Lauren smartly saw the value in prioritising her targets by loyalty. Wardog had betrayed her, but up until the last vote, they’d voted together every time. Meanwhile, Rick was a complete loose cannon – and one with ample support from the Jury sitting on Edge to boot. Both were big targets, but the latter was more dangerous for her game.
Even after Devens’ Immunity win, Lauren was still weighing up the options of whether keeping someone like Wardog would be a better shield for her game compared to another unknown quantity in Aurora to whom she had no real loyalty. Lauren showed great tact in navigating the tricky lines of the game and articulating herself well – even down to recognising the danger in the type of ‘alliance to the end’ and its inherent subtext that it meant they thought she was a beatable opponent for the Final 3. Now able to step out of Wentworth’s shadow, I’m excited to see how Lauren navigates this endgame as this episode emphasised her intuitive social strategy, even as she relented to fall in with the apparent majority decision to take out her old Lesu ally in Wardog.
The other major player on the fence was Ron, who seemed torn between the ego boost of aligning himself with the meat shield threats in Wardog and Rick as opposed to falling in with the “goats.” Ron toes a fascinating line between self-aware and self-aggrandizing, but that has allowed him to ride the middle. He might have gotten pulled into the hot seat at Tribal by Wardog announcing that it was he and Ron who flipped on Kelley, but I don’t think he wears the same kind of threat label applied to the likes of Wardog and Rick. They are out in front as dangers, and while Ron has certainly had his own brushes with over-confidence, his mistakes along the way have tarnished his threat level just enough.
With Wardog gone and Rick in the hot seat, I don’t see Ron as the no-brainer next biggest target among the remaining players, and that’s to his benefit. So despite his flirtation with continuing to work with Wardog, I think he made the absolute right decision to side with Julie and his love-hate partner Aurora for this vote. Falling in with this vote offers him cover and anonymity and gives him room to move, while also preserving relationships that advantage him moving forward.
Case-and-point is Aurora who has nowhere else to go. The de facto target yet again here, Aurora is consistently on the outside of the numbers and seems wholly incapable of finding a sturdy footing in a majority – or even a counter-alliance. Aside from her allegiance with the returnees pre-merge, we’ve seen very little to understand why she’s earned so much ire from the likes of Julie, but in her interactions with Ron, the picture begins to take a slightly clearer form.
Rice rations are always a source of petty argument in Survivor, but as Aurora and Ron disagreed over how much to dish up for the reward challenge losers, it crystallised that Aurora simply doesn’t gel with her original tribemates. It doesn’t matter who is right when it comes to portion size; the issue is that they disagree, and in Survivor, that can be enough to get the hackles up. To her credit, Aurora has been willing to bury the hatchet with her fellow drama queen and find some measure of a truce. She offered up her advantage as proof of her willingness to work with Ron, who regularly infuriates her, and he reciprocated the display of trust by returning it to her. They are an unlikely and barely functioning partnership, but in the chaos of this Final 8, barely functioning is better than nothing.
The only player who missed out on some deeper characterisation and strategic revelations this episode was Victoria, though she continued her chameleon-like propensity to protect herself by cutting whoever she must.
Altogether, though, this group predominantly comprised of the goats that the high-flying Wardog and Rick looked down on. They managed to put aside their differences and arrive on a cohesive plan that benefitted them all in the long run, eliminating a strategic threat with little to no loyalty to any of them, while also isolating the Edge favourite in Rick and advancing their tenuous allies. Not to mention earning brownie points from a Jury looking to taste that blood of a blindside with a move that clearly establishes them as gamers without needing the whizz-bang flash of a Big Move™ for the sake of a Big Move™.
MEANWHILE, ON THE EDGE
In an addendum to the episode, we checked in on Extinction for another bleak reflection on losing Survivor. Kelley, whose reputation was largely built on her scrappy underdog gameplay and iconic Idol plays, was unceremoniously duped while in a comfortable majority with an Idol in her pocket. In a sense, this was the worst defeat of her Survivor career – she couldn’t blame it on being collateral for her father’s game as in San Juan del Sur or the inevitability of a numerical disadvantage after a season-long underdog battle as in Cambodia. It hurt, and she felt despondent even with the comfort of her fellow returning players who met embarrassing defeats this season. This aspect of self-reflection facilitated by the Edge of Extinction is the most interesting aspect of the twist for me, and the fact that it plays out amidst the ghosts of the past is equally unique.
So while I may be growing weary of Reem’s habit of reaming out the players who voted her out on Day 3 in a bitter tirade as they come to terms with the shock of their own games ending, it makes for an intriguing reckoning. The Final 3 has to face their fair share of bitter jurors and allies wronged by a blindside return to camp from Tribal to let loose on the traitors all the time, but the unique confrontations in the limbo of the Edge are a different beast altogether. It’s a strange mix of bitter judgment and self-discovered healing, reflected even in Reem and Kelley’s encounters this episode.
First, Reem unleashed on Wentworth for ending her Survivor dream, seemingly mere hours after Kelley’s own dream was cut short. But then, in a moment of human care, we saw Reem approach Kelley to check in on her after she’d been out baking in the heat. There are hurt feelings and animosities on the Edge, but at the end of the day, they’re all still in this game together, and they’re all still starving and surviving on the same Island, so why face the reality of recovering from a devastating defeat all on your own?
It’s the home stretch now, and still, I have no idea how these final weeks will shake out. Devens is undoubtedly in danger, but we’ve seen how getting his second life in the game unchained him to play with house money, so it’s not necessarily an easy vote against him. Meanwhile, the other six competitors’ individualistic games continue to shuffle and shift, and nothing feels certain – except perhaps the bond between Ron & Julie. And who knows what chaos the final returnee from the Edge will do to this random mix of ever-shifting relationships.
This season has been a pleasant surprise in its unpredictability, and whatever it takes, I’m hoping its final weeks can continue to juggle the complex narrative towards a satisfying ending.